Airplanes and frightened customers/volunteers.

I’m writing this email on an airplane from Chicago to Nashville.

A few minutes ago, we hit some “rough air.”

I fly a lot, so turbulence doesn’t bother me.

This wasn’t mere turbulence.

It felt like the plane was dropping out of the sky.

Here is what happened inside me:

  • My Amygdala, the part of my brain that evaluates threats, decided I might die in a fiery crash. It went into “fight or flight” mode – super unhelpful because there was no one to “fight” and I obviously couldn’t flee the situation (“flight”).
  • My body released adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases fear so that wasn’t too helpful at 30,000 feet.
  • My life passed before my eyes (apparently, I watched a LOT of television as a child).

Then I saw him.

He was dressed in his navy-blue outfit with the little silver wings pinned on his chest.

Smiling broadly, he was pushing a cart full of coke, coffee and little plastic bottles of liquor for people who refuse to fly sober. Oh, and he had peanuts!

If he felt the plane plunging towards a Kentucky farm, he didn’t show it.

My savior.

My flight-attendant.

He flies all the time.

He knows what an emergency is, and what is just “rough air.”

He wasn’t worried at all.

Apparently, we weren’t about to plunge to our doom.

My Amygdala calmed down.

The adrenaline rush started to recede.

The flashbacks of my life passing before my eyes stopped before I got to seventh grade (thankfully… it was NOT a good year for young Ryan).

You are a flight attendant

A librarian once asked me how she should handle a patron experiencing homelessness who had Coprolalia (a rare symptom of Tourette’s where the person says vulgar and obscene things involuntarily). The man’s medical condition was harmless, but the offensive things he said frightened the other patrons.

I told the librarian that she is a flight attendant.

Just as I looked to the flight attendant for reassurance, your customers/patrons/volunteers look to you—the staff member—for reassurance.

They know that you know what is “genuinely scary” and what is just “rough air.”

So, here’s what you do when you have someone who is harmless doing something unusual/disturbing:

  • First, make it apparent that you see the person. This is easy. Simply look over at the person for a few seconds.
  • Then look calm.
  • If you want, you can even whisper something like “He’s harmless” or “Oh, that’s just Susan.”

It’s that easy.

If you ignore the situation, your other patrons won’t know how to act. You need to go out of your way to show that you are not afraid.

Remember, some middle-class folks have been shielded from poverty, homelessness, and mental illness. They need to be shown that homeless folks are not inherently dangerous.

Have a great week!

Empathy is the answer,


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